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5 Guidelines for Creating Culturally Competent Content

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On the voter rolls, I show up as nothing more than a 40-year-old South Asian woman. But if, knowing that, you show up on my doorstep (or in my inbox, or on my phone) with a perky Namaste, an inquiry about whether I saw RRR, and a persuasion appeal to my Asian family values, I will slam the door on you faster than an auntie making the connection about how my mother’s cousin’s son’s neighbor’s student’s cousin is related to you.

Why? Because you assumed things: that because of my name and origin, I have a certain kind of relationship with my family, that I only consume culturally specific content, and that my exposure to ideas and worldviews beyond my culture of origin is fundamentally limited. My example may seem extreme, but it’s not that far off from the halting condescension many folks use when they approach groups outside their own. 

Some points to keep in mind when crafting culturally competent outreach, content, and campaigns, beyond just remembering when Diwali or Ramadan are: 

Remember that everyone is the protagonist of their own story.

People can tell immediately if they’re being spoken to as a one-dimensional supporting character in someone’s savior fantasy, or as a cobbled-together caricature of research points, or as a symbol on a pedestal. Imagine a person in your target audience scrolling your content and what their day might be going like: their daily tasks and responsibilities, needs, priorities, fears, and wants, things they’re worrying about, things they’re relieved about, what a successful day might look like for them. They’re not interacting with your content from a place of reverent interest in your data capabilities: they’re out there living a life. Talking to them with the respect and humility you’d talk to any busy person who is as conscious and awake as you are.

Remember that marginalized groups are not monoliths.

At DBT, we once celebrated Latine Heritage Month by interviewing seven different Latine team members. Every one had a completely unique story, geographic trajectory, and relationship to their origins — none could have be substituted for another. Of Africa’s nearly five dozen countries, our CEO is from a specific one: Cameroon. The only doctor in my Indian family is the Czech pulmonologist my cousin married. Avoid generalizations about groups that are not based in historical fact (the dispossession of Native people, for example). Avoid framing people exclusively in terms of traumas. Seek when possibly to highlight diversity and variation within the group you are speaking to. 

Examine how groups speak about themselves.

Data will not teach you how it feels to live day to day as part of a particular group. When we worked with Advance Native Political Leadership to help increase pathways to elected office for Native peoples, we were opened every day to new ways of approaching outreach, particularly our clients’ emphasis on respectful greetings and live interaction vs. a quick phone call or more impersonal touch. In addition to research and articles about various groups, read nonfiction and fiction about their experiences, watch first-person video content, and learn how people are talking about themselves. Don’t simply learn by analysis: learn by immersion. 

This isn’t about you — and neither are your mistakes.

Overcoming that chagrin will take a fundamental attitude shift about what you’re trying to do: give others a voice. If you approach cultural competency from a perspective of mastery and “doing your homework,” failure will feel almost academic. Your goal should not be getting an A+ in talking to, for, on behalf of Black women, or Hmong families, or nurses, or whatever your chosen group is. Your goal should be creating relationships and increasing understanding through cultural translation

Cultural competency is for everyone — but if you’re white, it requires extra self-reflection.

I once had a very thoughtful white employee express concerns about writing content on behalf of a Native organization. I appreciated his concerns, and I explained to him that in our line of work, we don’t always have the luxury of assigning a certain voice to a person of that demographic — and I advised him that a first step in writing it was to be aware of what cultural assumptions resided in him. Do you assume that sounding “adult” or “professional” requires structuring sentences in a certain way? Do you assume that the goal of a statement is dominance, staking out turf, or creating relationships? 

Deep within whiteness can live a tendency to position oneself as an expert or knight on behalf of others (I well remember a white woman who regaled me for 15 unironic minutes with the revelation that “white people never let people of color talk” as my eyes glazed over) rather than releasing hubris and listening. This is another good reminder that when you write on behalf of or in the voice of someone with a different background, you are not just a ventriloquist and you are not just showing off your knowledge: you are translating universal human emotions and desires on behalf of another. 

At the end of the day, while our experiences of race, culture, ability, and other differences may give us different worldviews, we all want the same things: to feel respected, to feel seen, to be spoken to as equals. I appreciate Diwali posts, but guess what: I’ve got a lot else going on, and so do folks in other groups. Talk to me about mental health in our communities, colorism in our communities, and make room for queer South Asians as well. The number of issues and stories you can touch on when speaking to a group outside your own is endless. You just have to develop the will to find out what they are. 

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